Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Army Football Preview: Duke

Army laid an old-school ass-whuppin’ on Air Force on Saturday, and by God, it was satisfying as all Hell.  Cries of “Bring on Navy!” echoed across Black Knight Nation because now the December 9th showdown will be for the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s trophy.
First, though, the Army Team will have to get by the Duke Blue Devils, a very good team that has had the particular misfortune of playing both a resurgent Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) schedule and a number of very tough regional rivalry games, too.  It’s a bad spot for the Black Knights coming off an emotional win on the road against a talented but desperate Duke team that is itself coming off a bye and which needs to win 2 of its last 3 to become bowl eligible.
Army is undefeated at home this season.  If they want to stay that way, they’ll have to get past the big win in Colorado Springs in a hurry.  This Duke team presents one of the toughest tests Army will have faced all season.

The Army Black Knights
Who knew that getting the two best players in your secondary back would make such an enormous difference?
Ha.  That’s a joke, folks.  Of course it helps to get those guys back!
Jeff Monken called the defense’s performance on Saturday their best “by far” in his tenure as Army’s head coach, and although there were a lot of reasons for that—including rest coming off of the bye week and good familiarity with Air Force’s offense—it’s still worth noting that S Rhyan England and CB Elijah Riley collectively made a gigantic impact on the game.  Riley in particular was super-effective at setting the edge against Air Force’s running game.  Considering the number of long runs we’ve seen the Army defense give up on the edges this season, that was huge! 
It allowed the whole defense to function better. Better play on the outside helped the linebackers make plays inside and get better pressure, and here we are.  Army’s defense has been something of a work-in-progress this year, but now, as we head into the final, most important leg of the season, they look like they are finally rounding into form.
Army held a very potent Air Force attack to less than 100 yards rushing and less than 200 yards of total offense.  Air Force was just 3/11 on 3rd down.  Granted, one game in nine is not enough to create a step-change in the statistics, but it certainly helps.  Army’s rushing defense has slowly worked its way back from the abyss.  They now stand 64th nationally, having brought their average down to 167 yards allowed/game on an average of 5.2 yards/carry.  That’s maybe not excellent, but it’s still nearly a half-yard/carry better than the season’s nadir.  Moreover, the Black Knights’ scoring defense sits at an outstanding 20th overall, with 18.9 points allowed/game.  They’ve been great in the red zone all season long.
On offense... I mean, what is there to say?  QB Ahmad Bradshaw barfed twice and then put up the best performance of his career.  That shit is crazy.  Bradshaw not only ran for more than 260 yards, he also consistently made the right reads.  Which is why SB Kell Walker had 2 touchdowns amid Bradshaw’s best game.  But that’s not new; we’ve seen it since last year’s opener.  On the season, Army’s top five rushers are all averaging more than 5.0 yards/carry, and FB Connor Slomka, the short yardage back, is at 4.6.  With Navy’s loss to Temple, Army has finally pulled into the lead nationally in rushing with an average of 365.4.
They’ll need all of that and then some this week.
On special teams, Army missed a field goal in windy conditions but had good kickoffs and kick coverage.  I don’t want to call that a push, but it’s not necessarily cause for concern, either.  
If we must be concerned about something, we’d do better to worry about efficiency in the passing game, which remains well below 50% for Bradshaw and “throwing” QB Kelvin Hopkins both.  On the year, Army is 16/56 passing for 266 yards (28.6%) and 2 touchdowns against 5 interceptions.  With a strong Blue Devil defense coming to town, that might be a problem.
The Duke Blue Devils
From the Blue Devils’ sideline, this season has to look like a disappointment.  QB Daniel Jones was electric in his freshman year, going 270/430 passing for 2,836 (62.8%) with 16 touchdowns against just 9 interceptions.  Head coach David Cutcliffe then spent the offseason trying to find weapons for Jones, but it just hasn’t come together.  
This year, Jones is just 168/314 for 1,752 yards (53.5%) with 8 touchdowns against a whopping 7 interceptions, and the Blue Devils sit 4-5 overall with just a single win in the ACC.  They whupped up on NC Central to open the season before earning decisive wins against Northwestern, Baylor, and North Carolina.  But they haven’t won since.  They lost 31-6 to #14 Miami, 28-21 to Virginia, 17-10 to a Florida State team that’s had serious trouble getting wins, 24-17 to a middling Pitt team, and then 24-3 to #13 Virginia Tech.  That’s a tough schedule, but there are still a few legitimate disappointments in there.

Like a lot of the teams that Army has faced this season, Duke has a good defense but hasn’t been able to consistently score points.  The Blue Devils are running pretty well with 167.8 yards/game rushing (61st), but that hasn’t done much to open up their passing game.  At 203.4 yards passing/game, they stand 85th in the FBS, and worse, they’re tied for 98th in scoring with an average of just 24.3 points.  RBs Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown both average more than 5 yards/carry, and that’s good, but they have just 8 rushing touchdowns between them, and that hasn’t been enough to get the team over the hump.
Still, let’s don’t sleep on this Blue Devils’ defense.  They are the 40th ranked rushing defense, having given up 330 carries for 1,279 yards (3.9 yards/carry) and an average of just 142.1 yards/game.  That’s not bad, especially against this schedule.  More to the point, though, the Blue Devils have a very good scoring defense, having allowed just 20.6 points/game despite having two ranked opponents on their schedule.
If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, well, it should.  Duke is having almost exactly the same season statistically as are the Temple Owls (4-5).  Football Outsiders shows this clearly through S&P+:
Off. S&P+
Def. S&P+
It’s worth noting that Duke is coming off its bye to face two triple-option teams in the next two weeks—Army and in-conference rival Georgia Tech.  The Blue Devils’ defense sees the triple-option twice every year and will absolutely be ready for what they’ll face this coming Saturday.
Boy, this is really going to be a tough game.
P(Wins) Comparison: Army vs. its schedule (Duke Week).
Fullback dive vs. Duke’s interior D-Line.  Duke absolutely embarrassed Army at home two years ago by getting good penetration against Army’s interior O-Line, allowing them to disrupt the intermesh on the fullback dive.  Remember what Army did just last Saturday to Air Force?  That’s what Duke did but even moreso.  Plays couldn’t even get started.  Bradshaw was getting blown up as soon as he touched the football.
Things went a little better last year, but the Black Knights still struggled to run with any authority, and FB Andy Davidson had a critical fumble going into the end zone—granted in the middle of a hurricane.  Army has been good about fixing mistakes this season, but this Duke front will be rested and ready.  Army’s O-Line needs to tee off and set the tone early, or it could be a long day in the trenches.
Army’s passing game vs. itself.  Army had to throw against Temple to keep its offense on the field, and considering the similarities between the Owls and the Blue Devils, I expect we’ll see that again this Saturday.  Duke is going to play a disciplined front against the Fullback Dive and the inside Quarterback Keeper, and I expect they’ll have good pursuit on the pitch.  Army’s passing attack will have to perform, or as I said earlier, it’s going to be a long day for the offense.
The Army defense vs. Duke’s running game.  Maybe the Blue Devils can beat Army on the arm of Daniel Jones, but if Army can bottle up the running game, they can get after Jones and make it a lot harder for him.  This is where it absolutely helps having England and Riley back.  Those guys are critical in run support.  Duke’s best chance by far is to run at an Army team that’s given up a lot of yards on the ground to similar teams.
Punting and kick coverage.  This game is liable to see a lot of punts.  A timely block or a well-executed fake could very easily be the difference this weekend.
Final Thoughts
Duke opened as a 2-point road favorite, but the line moved to -1.5 shortly afterwards before rebounding to Duke (-3).  I don't get it.  That's a sucker’s bet.  Which is not to say that Duke can’t win or that they won’t cover, but laying points on the road with a team that’s 4-5 overall is just not smart, especially against a squad that hasn’t lost in its own building all year.  It’s a tough spot for the Black Knights, that’s true, but Army has had to come back from multiple emotional wins, get grounded quickly, and play smart already this season.  If they haven’t always been super-consistent against the spread, they’ve still found ways to steal victory.  That’s what counts.  
Moreover, the impact of England and Riley is enormous.  This is literally not the same defense as the one that Army fielded through some of its lowest defensive points this season.  Not only is half the secondary back after a prolonged absence, but the Black Knights are also fielding a slightly different set of linebackers than the ones they projected when the season began.  The team has not just “replaced” Andrew King and Jeremy Timpf with “the next man up”.  It’s taken time to shake out the linebacking corps and come up with a group that can truly perform.  We seem to have found that group as of last week, however, and that is no small thing.
As a final note, temperatures are finally supposed to drop this week.  This is important because the U.S. generally and New York in particular have seen an extended period of warm weather, so that Saturday’s upper-30° temps might come as something of a shock.  Army will have the chance to acclimate as temperatures decline, but for a Duke team coming up from North Carolina, this might be their first shot of even moderately cold weather.  We might see just a bit of fumble-fingers out there, especially early, and in a game like this, even a 5% change in performance could be decisive.  If you’re coming to the stadium, do yourself a favor and dress warmly!  
Army will wear the 82nd Airborne Division patch this weekend, and speaking personally, I’m looking for one last shot of Michie Stadium magic.

Go Army!  Beat Duke!!!

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